Tuscany Trail 2015 – Part 1
Beaten, bruised, battered and in every other way broken!
My saddle sores have saddle sores, my knees are ruined, my achilles tendons are excruciatingly painful and everything else (and I mean everything else) is overused, abused, sprained and pained, burnt and hurt but this all has very little to do with the Tuscany Trail event, route or terrain and everything to do with my approach to this trip.
I went and got myself a little bit obsessed and the whole thing became a tiny little bit epic. Not in the sense that real endurance folks might consider something epic but, for me, this trip became something of a beast.
The last three ‘big’ things I’ve attempted either failed or were compromised to some extent and I suppose I felt I had something to prove to myself. I wanted, no needed to know if I really had it in me to put the effort in and give 100% for as long as it took to get the job done. So…..I gave it all that I had to give, then a bit more and then kept right on giving until I became the besmirched husk of my former self that sits typing this article.
One would be forgiven for assuming (based on my finishing time of 3 days, 15 hours and 28 minutes) that I was one of the many who saw this as a nice gentle tour enjoying days of pleasant riding, taking in the sights, soaking up the culture, devouring the local food (ok, so I did this one) and generally moseying and meandering loosely towards the finish line at a leisurely pace – but no!
Over the event I put in four mean-ass days of 15, 11, 15 and 16 hours in the saddle. Starting at around 8h each morning and only once finishing before 23h.
I only stopped to use the toilet, refill my water or grab a quick snack (only twice did I even sit down to eat) – no dipping in a nice river to cool off, no having a quick snooze, no long lunches or other time sucking endeavors, I had work to do!
The result is that I now know (rather than suspecting as I had done for years) that I can ride multiple long days, put up with massive discomfort and pain and still , despite all of this, deliver a decidedly mediocre performance!
At last it is confirmed that it is my weight, fitness and strength that are my limiting factors – not that I’m a pussy – huzzah!
A NEW HOPE…..
In the months leading up to the Tuscany Trail I’d been putting in some big(ish) miles in the saddle and so it was a fairly confident Gairy who departed Chamonix early on Thursday morning.
Here you can see the moody and pensive sky as I drove out of the valley at some daft hour:
In contrast to my physical preparation my clothing and kit choices were more than a little half-arsed with me having forgotten a bunch of items that would’ve made my time a whole lot easier but luckily nothing über important was omitted.
I was also to ride a bike I’d never ridden before, use a GPS device I’d only used twice before to navigate and weirdly chose this precise moment in my life to try out SPD’s for the first time.
Never claimed I was smart, did I?
Once I’d parked up, eaten some tasty local seafood and gotten my crap together I headed over to race HQ and quickly got chatting with a few of the other English speaking riders. The Meet-and-greet was fun with the Italians very loudly being very Italian and the rest of us quietly chatting with each other in the ‘foreigners’ corner.
Surprisingly there were more and more fatties arriving by the minute and I’d estimate that around 5% of the 230 starters were on fatbikes with a further 5% on + bikes of some description and so the fatter tyres were very well represented:
I remember chatting with one fella on a CX bike saying to him “one of us has clearly chosen the wrong bike” but with hindsight I think I was wrong as we all finished and we all had fun – the bikes themselves were almost irrelevant.
THE ‘CALM’ BEFORE THE STORM:
We went out for a loud (and predictably late – nothing seems to happen with very much urgency in Italy, except driving) pasta meal at a local restaurant the evening before the race and a bloody lovely time was had by all. I left early as I was knackered and really wanted to be well rested before the start.
Unfortunately the sports hall we were all sharing was the brightest, noisiest and smelliest sleeping quarters in all of human history and very little rest was to be found.
At one point I lay there genuinely impressed with just how many different tones, pitches, volumes and styles of snoring were represented by the group.
Come morning I felt like I’d already raced a medium-sized endurance event and just wanted more rest but no…..things were about to get interesting…..
AND WE’RE OFF…..
I soon found myself in a big group of like-minded bikepacking lunatics ready to head off into the unknown (more so for me than many others as I’d done zero research about the area, route or anything else for that matter) armed only with a strange bike, half of the kit I’d planned on taking, a line on an unfamiliar screen to follow and a bag with some bread, sardines, ham and lots of water in it – what could go wrong?
The countdown was counted down and the group squeezed through the narrow streets and out into the Tuscan hills for a nice little adventure…..
After about 18km of relatively flat quiet road riding out of town things started to turn decidedly ‘climby’.
The first ascent (all 1000m of it) had begun. At first it was gentle, then steeper, then offroad, then steeper and before long things had deteriorated into a mammoth hike-a-bike section that had many of the riders swearing, falling and grinding to a complete halt – nice.
Growing up riding in the Peak District and now living in the Alps I am no stranger to pushing, dragging and carrying my bike up some truly horrendous trails and so I gained a whole load of places and for a few brief moments I felt like I might have a chance at a decent placing come the end of the day.
Here are a couple of shots of that first climb:
Once up and over the summit I waded through the crowds of people having a rest on the trail and immediately set about descending as fast as I could in order to push the advantage of arriving fresh and happy at the top of the climb and also of having the perfect bike for the loose rock and slippery conditions of the technical descent that followed.
However, this early positivity and good fortune was never going to last and the beginning of my troubles to come soon materialised on the next big climb of the day.
A certain big biking website (who shall remain nameless but who are now on my ‘list’ nonetheless) had reviewed the bike I was riding just prior to me picking it up and so when Michael Travers had come to sort the bike out for me upon getting it back from it’s previous review he discovered that the double chainset had been demolished and so he did the only thing he could under the circumstances and fitted a 1×10 single chainring setup.
I hadn’t really been made aware of the shortcomings of this (32t by 12-36t) setup on the previous climb due to early race adrenalin and the massive amount of hike-a-bike involved but by the second climb my legs were already beginning to display signs of premature fatigue at having to push such unsuitable gears and not being used/up to it.
By the top my fate was sealed and I’d blown my legs completely but wasn’t yet willing to admit what a problem this might be for the coming days and so I decided to keep on pushing (often literally as I simply didn’t have the gears to make it up many of the climbs) into the evening.
The route passed through some stunning scenery and really nice quaint and very old villages.
Take a peep:
As the evening progressed I refused to admit that I was pooped and so continued on determined that my plan of reaching Florence on day 1 was still a good idea.
I pushed and pushed and pushed long into the evening and then just as I was coming around to the idea of stopping for the night it started raining.
Did I forget to mention that one of the things I’d forgotten was my tarp which meant that my super lightweight bivi bag was insufficient to sleep directly out in the rain and so I kept on riding hoping to come across some kind of shelter – I’d passed at least a hundred suitable structures earlier in the day but now there was nothing to be found and it was getting dark.
My energy levels were severely depleted by this point and so when I eventually crawled over the final peak and started to descend into civilisation my only thought was of a nice little room for the night and the comforts that awaited me.
Unfortunately I was not the only person to have this same thought (though I was the slowest) and so everywhere I tried was full of Tuscany Trail riders and so I did the only thing I could and kept on riding (I was now in a semi-urban area and the wild camping spots were nonexistent).
Fast-forward a few more hours and, after over 15 hours of riding, I finally stumbled upon a crappy overpriced bed & breakfast on the outskirts of Florence and fell into bed at around midnight.
Shattered, cold, wet and physically broken I could only hope that a good nights sleep would see me emerge fighting fit the next day.